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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                    113
fellow-pupil at the factory apprenticeship school. Her
name was Olga. She was now a technician at the Kamy-
shin saw-mill, where he himself had worked as a metal
turner. This girl was something more than a boyhood
friend, and her letters were out of the ordinary. It was
not surprising that he read each one several times, picked
them up again and again and perused the simplest lines
in the endeavour to find in them some other, joyous,
hidden meaning, although it was not quite clear even to
himself what he sought in them.
She wrote that she was up to her ears in work, that she
did not even go home at night but slept at the office so as
not to lose time going and coming, that Alexei would prob-
ably not recognise the saw-mill now, and that he would
be amazed, would simply go crazy with joy, if he knew
what they were making now. Incidentally, she wrote that
on the rare days off, not more than once a month, she
went to see his mother, that the old lady was very
worried about not hearing from her elder sons, that she
was having a hard time, and lately had been in failing
health. The girl begged Alexei to write to his mother
more often and at greater length, and not to disturb her
with bad news about himself as, probably, he was now
her only joy.
Reading and rereading Olga's letters, Alexei saw
through his mother's little ruse in telling him about the
dream. He realised that his mother was longing for him,
resting her hopes in him, and he also realised what a
frightful shock it would be to her, and to Olga, if he
wrote them about his legs. He pondered a long time over
what to do, and had not the courage to write and tell the
truth. He decided to withhold that for a time and to
write them both that he was well, that he had been
transferred to a quiet sector; to explain the change of
address and make it sound plausible, he wrote that he
was on a special assignment with a unit in the rear and
would stay there for a long time.
And now, when the word "amputate" was mentioned
more and more often by the surgeons in their consulta-
tions near his bed, a feeling of horror overcame him. How
could he return home to Kamyshin a cripple? How was
he to show Olga his wooden stumps? What a terrible blow